Part 2—The superintendent's tale: According to laws of our modern “news” business, American news comes in two flavors:
If an anniversary of real news occurs, it will be treated as news.
If Donald Trump is speaking somewhere, that constitutes breaking news.
Last week marked the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. In accord with the first precept listed above, this touched off an imitation pseudo-discussion of the New Orleans schools.
Various people stated their view of the current state of those schools. Professor Gabor, a skeptic and perhaps a detractor, gave it a try on August 23, in the New York Times’ Sunday Review.
Her piece was called, “The Myth of the New Orleans School Makeover.” You can just click here.
The very next day, Jonathan Chait took the opposite tack in a New York Magazine piece. He said a “revolution” has occurred in Big Easy schools since the time of Katrina.
Chait’s piece bore this headline: “How New Orleans Proved Urban-Education Reform Can Work.” To peruse his work, click this.
What has occurred in the New Orleans schools? We can’t answer that question. For today, let’s offer a bit of background, some words of warning, a soupcon of basic context.
In particular, let’s examine the so-called “big pimping” which has been conducted by the state of Louisiana’s superintendent of education.
John White is the superintendent in question. We would assume he is well-intentioned. Indeed, his overall claims on behalf of New Orleans may turn out to be correct.
That said, we were struck by some of the claims White made last week, first in a letter to the New York Times, then in an opinion column in the Washington Post.
On balance, the superintendent’s so-called “big pimping” may end up seeming right and just. But it’s a type of advocacy which has surrounded failed miracle claims in the past. As we prepare for our review of this year’s back to school reporting, we thought it might be worth observing some possible problems with White’s presentations and claims.
Ten years had passed, and so it was time to pretend to discuss those schools! Last Thursday, White responded to Professor Gabor. His letter appeared in the New York Times. It included these boasts:
WHITE (8/27/15): The city’s high school graduation rate has increased to 73 percent last year from 54 percent in 2005. The average ACT score for black students in New Orleans exceeds the national average, and the graduation rate for black males does as well.Presumably, a rise in the graduation rate is a good thing. Presumably, so is an increase in the percentage of students attending college.
The percentage of seniors attending college has increased to more than half of all seniors today from little more than a third a decade ago.
That said, New Orleans underwent significant demographic change as a result of Katrina. In 2005, enrollment in the city’s schools stood at 65,610. As of last year, enrollment was 43,948.
When enrollments drop that much as the result of a major disaster, a serious student will want to avoid facile before-and-after comparisons. You’ll want to keep that point in mind when we review Big Easy schools after Labor Day.
For now, we’ll offer a second thought about those claims by White. His claim about the average ACT score was perhaps a tiny bit slippery, at least as presented in that letter, in a way you can surely spot.
The Times should have asked him to be more precise. At any rate, here’s what White said about ACT scores the very next day in his column in the Washington Post:
WHITE (8/28/15): This school choice program for parents, budgeting and hiring autonomy for principals, and stringent accountability for charter school boards has worked. Though more students than ever before in New Orleans take the ACT test, the city’s average score has increased nearly two full points since 2005 and now tops the national average for African American students. The city’s high school graduation rate has increased from 54 percent to 73 percent, beating the national average for African American males. The rate of seniors going to college has increased from 37 percent to 59 percent.His claim about ACT scores had changed—though it still could be seen, at least by a skeptic, as being perhaps a bit slick.
White now said that the average ACT score for all New Orleans students “tops the national average for African American students.” That statement seems to be true; in fact, it seems to be true by a fairly significant margin.
But in that comparison, White is now comparing apples-plus-oranges in New Orleans to national apples only. When education officials reason like this, we advise you to be concerned about their overall work.
Just this once, let’s be fair! It seems to be true that average ACT scores in New Orleans have risen, by a substantial amount, over the past ten years. In one respect, this rise is especially striking. We refer to a point White actually understated in his piece on the Post:
In 2005, taking the ACT was optional for kids in New Orleans schools. By 2015, every student in Louisiana was required to take the ACT. We can all see what that means:
In New Orleans, scores have risen even as the percentage taking the test rose from some undisclosed figure to a full 100 percent! That makes the Big Easy’s rise in average ACT scores seem more impressive still.
Still and all, a careful person will still want to consider that large drop in Big Easy enrollment. Beyond that, a further question arises about White’s use of the ACT:
People! Everyone knows that tests like the ACT are poorly designed for these kinds of comparisons. In some jurisdictions, everybody takes the ACT. In other jurisdictions, only the brightest students do.
(On a national basis, the ACT says that 57 percent of students are tested.)
In the current situation, New Orleans comes off looking quite good, since everyone is said to be taking the test. But this raises an important question—why is White forced to use the ACT as his basis for national comparisons?
In our view, the answer raises a bit of a warning flag. Try to bear with us here:
White is forced to use the ACT because New Orleans doesn’t take part in the NAEP! And yes, that makes us a bit suspicious:
We refer, of course, to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the widely-praised “gold standard” of domestic educational testing. Since 2002, the NAEP has run a special program—the TUDA!—in which students in large urban districts are tested in reading and math.
Twenty-one major urban districts now take part in this invaluable program. New York and Chicago? LA, DC and Atlanta? All these cities take part in the program.
The New Orleans schools still don’t.
Given the way our “discourse” works, no one ever asks why that is. But this means that we can’t use the NAEP, our one reliable testing program, to measure the progress of New Orleans public school students. Instead, we’re forced to rely on the ACT, which manifestly wasn’t designed for that purpose.
Why doesn’t New Orleans take part in the NAEP? A person with a skeptical streak will automatically wonder. But given the way our “discourse” works, no one will ever ask that question, certainly not at slacker locales like the New York Times or the Washington Post.
Has a miracle occurred in New Orleans’ schools? We can’t answer that question. But people who promote that idea are forced to refer to ACT scores. Beyond that, they discuss the substantial score gains New Orleans seems to have recorded on Louisiana’s annual statewide tests.
Those score gains may be real! But in recent years, similar score gains have been pimped in other big urban systems where “revolutions” were said to be happening—and those score gains have collapsed in giant cheating scandals.
It happened in DC during the Rhee revolution. It happened in Atlanta, whose superintendent, the late Beverly Hall, was being hailed as a miracle worker.
In each of those systems, we had NAEP scores we could use to track the actual progress of the systems’ students. But local test scores were being inflated by the most despicable forms of flat-out cheating. But alas! Given the way our “discourse” works, no one remembers these recent events at the Times or the Post when enthusiasts arrive on the scene with the latest miracle story.
Let’s be clear: test score by black and Hispanic students have risen, in substantial ways, on the NAEP in the last twenty years. That’s an important fact which routinely gets disappeared at imitation “newspapers” like the Times and the Post.
The latest example occurred this Sunday in the Washington Post. Robert Bobb is a former president of the D.C. Board of Education. Right at the start of an op-ed column, he was singing the same old song:
BOBB (8/30/15): Disparities in educational achievement between low-income minority students and their more affluent peers loom large, despite years of work to close the gap. Some point to this as a reason we should back away from accountability-driven endeavors such as stronger state standards and aligned assessments. In fact, it should motivate us only to redouble those efforts and push boldly forward.According to Bobb, we have experienced a “lack of significant improvement among economically disadvantaged minority students” during our “years of standardized testing.”
Civil rights leaders and testing opponents have been locked in a fight over this issue. Testing critics say the lack of significant improvement among economically disadvantaged minority students—despite years of standardized testing—proves that tests do little to close the achievement gap and in fact only exacerbate inequity. Civil rights advocates, in turn, argue that the tests provide data essential to understanding the magnitude of the gap in student performance and highlighting the need to fix it.
Why do people like Bobb keep saying such things? We can’t tell you that. But that’s a familiar, gloomy old song—and, according to the NAEP, its claim is flatly false.
At slacker locales like the Washington Post, we never stop hearing that tired old song. It’s a favorite song of corporate elites. They never tire of singing that song. It's their own version of “big pimping.”
What is happening in Big Easy schools? In the absence of NAEP scores, we’re forced to fall back on much less reliable measures.
Advocates are also forced to forget those recent major cheating scandals. Has cheating perhaps occurred in New Orleans too? Given the way our “discourse” works, no one will ever ask.
Might we be a bit more direct? In the broken world of our “journalism,” no one actually seems to care. Journalism barely exists in this land. On various sides of various fences, it’s narrative all the way down.
Tomorrow: More background, this time concerning that study of black kids’ suspensions